Offa’s Dyke Path, day 2: Chepstow to Bigsweir

May 20, 2019 0 Comments

After breakfast we wait for three more guestwalkers, J, G and A.  It’s unusual to have as many as six in the group, and there can be drawbacks – losing members by accident on the way, for example – but it makes for a rich mix of character and conversation. 

We cross the old iron bridge over the Wye – the water runs like milk chocolate below – and head up the steep lane, but this time continuing uphill to the north.  We start on a long series of short lanes and paths that cross and re-cross the B4228.  This is a dangerous road for walkers – narrow and full of fast traffic.  We never seem to be entirely free of it.  As we climb, the houses, some of them bearing names that mix Welsh and English (‘Caerwood’), become larger, their estates grander (one features a slim Aphrodite sheltering under a cupola in a mock circular temple), and the closed metal gates across their drives more ornate.  We know we’re no longer in Wales, but in plush rural Gloucestershire, where the gap between the very rich and the rest passes from the serious to the grotesque.

We pass a huge abandoned stone quarry, excavated far below the surface (only a metal fence lies between us and oblivion), and ‘Wintour’s Leap’, where a prominent Cavalier is said to have flung himself off the cliff rather than submit to the Parliamentarians (we dismiss the story as Royalist propaganda).  Past yet another mansion, we skirt a field and then make a foolish mistake.  Admittedly, there’s no Path sign, and we’ve been lulled into a sense of safety by abundant signs so far.  But we turn right instead of left, walk well over half a mile in the wrong direction, and find ourselves in the village of Woodcroft. We ask a resident for advice.  After some thought we realise he’s sending us, whether through mischief or incompetence, in the completely wrong direction, Instead, we retrace our steps and eventually find the right track.

At last we’re rid of the road, and the path turns left into woodland.  This is the land of the beech tree.  Its leaves are now fully grown, and spread horizontally like hands, catching the sun and heat.   Look high above, and a brilliant light green canopy shines against the clear sky.  (It’s becoming warm, as the unusually cold spell ends and high pressure moves in.)  Soon the Dyke appears, marching north through the woodland and undergrowth.  We’re now high above the river, with a steep slope to our left. The path turns into a track, and after a mile of two the trees start to give way to show a view upstream, towards Tintern and its abbey, far below.  One of the views is called the Devil’s Pulpit, where Satan was said to have tested the faith of the Cistercians.

After a break to eat and drink we decide to abandon the official Path and descend the slope to Tintern.  Out come the walking sticks, as we try to keep our balance on the treacherous path to the river.  Then across the bridge, a brief visit to the Abbey, and a walk along the main road northward.  This is Wordsworth territory.  We’ve already aired a strong disagreement in our group about how we should rate him : supreme poet of nature versus pantheistic bore and reactionary.  Further down the valley the road’s closed for repair, so the remaining traffic’s sparser and quieter.  G promises us the best cakes in Monmouthshire if we press ahead, now away from the road and on a pastoral riverside path.  She guides us to the Tintern Station Café, complete with signal box, carriages and other railway furniture that would interest our grandchildren.  It’s mid-afternoon and (A excepted) we yield to Satanic temptation and eat a large slice of orange cake covered with dark chocolate.  For a long-distance walker this seems like paradise. 

At the riverside village of Brockweir we cross back to the English bank, and for some miles glide through grassy meadows.  The river waters flow smoothly beside us, sometimes glinting in the sun, and tall trees, of several species, line the steep sides of the valley side to the east.  A dark cormorant stands watch on an old post in the river.  We’re overtaken by two laden lads who are on their way to Monmouth, and then Prestatyn.  We plead old age to excuse our half-hearted ambition and slower speed.  On the opposite bank the village of Llandogo, where G lives, spills in tiers down the steep slope towards a bend in the Wye.

Suddenly, short of Bigsweir, a neat paper sign announces Prospect Cottage, our next stop.  We say farewell to J (who’s going home), and G and A, who join us again tomorrow, and climb up to the Cottage.  In the last rays of the sun we sit on the balcony, overlooking the river below and the outskirts of Llandogo beyond.  Tits, goldfinches and robins feast noisily on seed feeders a few feet away, and the owners’ black cat keeps us under surveillance, at a discreet distance.

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